John Jacob Niles (1892-1980, frequently referred to as J. J. Niles) was a notably eccentric and interesting figure, even within a field as crowded with eccentric and interesting people as folk music. He was born and raised in Kentucky. His family seems to have moved back and forth from Louisville to more rural areas and he graduated from Manual High School in Louisville, which I can see from my office window. He was from a musical family, and his mother taught him the rudiments of music theory. Even in his early teens he made field trips to collect folk songs and he wrote his first song at the age of 16, "Go 'Way From My Window," one of his most performed and recorded songs.
After service in World War I, he continued his classical training and his song collecting in both Europe and the United States. He later married and settled on a farm in rural Clark County, Kentucky, from which he frequently traveled on collecting trips and performance tours, and he began making recordings of his own songs, as well as of the songs he collected.
The authorship of the songs he sang is always an interesting question. On more than one occasion he claimed that a song he had actually written was, in fact, a folk song that he had collected. (As far as I know he never did the reverse, claiming a genuine folk song as his own composition.) He would frequently take a pre-existing snatch of music and/or poetry and expand it into a song, as with "Go 'Way From My Window," which was inspired by a single line he heard sung over and over by a worker on his parents' farm. He would also retain the words of a traditional song, but compose a new melody for it, most famously perhaps in the case of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," for which he composed the melody now almost universally sung to it because he didn't like the traditional tune. For years it was thought he had simply collected another variant of the tune somewhere, when he had actually composed it himself.
Even the genuine folk songs he performed were often modified in ways that, I think, reflect his classical training, in that they employ much wider ranges than most traditional songs do and are considerably more chromatic than is the norm. See the version of "Froggy Went A-Courtin" in this set, for example. Those sudden mode changes and chromatic modulations are hardly typical of folk music.
Niles had a unique and arresting performance style. He sang in a very high, pure falsetto, accompanying himself with simple chords on a dulcimer or a huge lute which he made himself. His diction and intonation were perfect (in contrast to his lute, which was frequently not very well in tune). He disdained the cool, "objective" style used by many folk singers, and sang instead with an amazing, sometimes terrifying, passion. I still remember being electrified by his version of "The Lass From the Low Country," which a college roommate introduced me to many years ago. Although not nearly as well known to the general public as he should be, he was an enormous influence on the singers and song-writers of the folk music revival in the 50s and 60s. This includes Bob Dylan, who uses the line "Go 'way from my window" as the opening of one of his best-known songs, "It Ain't Me Babe." Indeed, it is hard to imagine the folk music revival taking place without Niles's inspiration. "I Wonder as I Wander," another of his compositions he originally claimed to have collected, has become a minor Christmas classic, with many arrangements of it and quite a few recordings.
This set is of five of the songs for which he is most known, including both his own compositions and genuine folk songs. It was arranged for cello and bass at the behest of my colleagues at the University of Louisville School of Music, cellist Paul York and bassist Sidney King. I have tried to provide simple, but modern arrangements that reflect the original music and the texts, both serious and humorous. I should mention that my arrangement of "I Wonder as I Wander" was inspired by Sidney's own lovely arrangement of the same tune for four string basses.